What’s It’s Like To Return To Work Post-Treatment During COVID-19
I was diagnosed with Stage 2, ER+PR+Her2-, invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC) on Valentine’s Day, 2019. I was actually at work when I got the call, and in an act of classic compartmentalizing, I made a few calls to important people in my life, took some deep breaths to stop the world from spinning, and then opened my office door and continued to finish out my workday for another two hours. I took an 11-month medical leave of absence from the end of February 2019. Fast forward through treatment and healing, both physical and mental, and finally, in late January 2020, I was ready to start a graduated return to work. At the advice of my doctors, I started with a very relaxed schedule of half days and intended to ramp up to full-time hours at the end of March.
But then COVID-19 got really real.
I work in HR for a large regional healthcare organization. When I started back at work at the end of January, preparation for the healthcare system to respond to a potentially global pandemic had already become the daily top focus for senior leadership at my organization. The unfolding reality of what a global pandemic would mean played out in real-time as I was getting re-accustomed to putting together a work wardrobe, deciding whether to wear prosthetics to work or go flat (#keepemguessing), and figuring out what to do with my wild post-chemo hair.
My supportive team started off trying very hard not to overwhelm me, to the point I was (dare I say it?) a little bored. But that started to become less and less of a problem at the beginning of March as the novel Coronavirus became a growing reality in Ontario; as the government began urging Canadians to cancel their travel plans, and finally in the second week of March when the idea of transferring the absolute maximum number of our over one thousand staff to working from home became more than an academic exercise.
Suddenly I was working more than full time, and doing it back in my home. I had spent the majority of the previous year at home, juggling appointments, walks around the neighbourhood, and the odd lunch date with a friend. I had these large stretches of alone time while my kids (4 and 7 years old) and spouse were at school and work. Sure there were parts of it where I felt like death and the icy grip of my own mortality sort of hung over a bit, but the pace of life and the time to myself was peaceful and slow.
Since March 14, however, we’ve all been home, all the time. My wardrobe flipped back to the cancer patient days of stretchy pants and comfy socks. My plan to grow out my post-chemo hair strategically, with frequent hair trims to avoid the mullet look, flew right out the window. My slow and peaceful existence, even my methodical plan for gradually increasing my work responsibilities, seemed like a different time.
When I finished treatment and had the return to work conversation with my oncologist, I expressed my fear that I wasn’t ready. He disagreed and said that his experience is that people do better when they get back to their normal life after cancer treatment. This is hardly normal life, but what I have found is that getting back to work in the middle of a global pandemic suddenly pulled me out from the world of the helped, into the world of the helping. Last year when I was sick, I was cared for so well – but one of the most debilitating feelings to me was that the world was passing me by and that I was not needed. But how that has changed! My job is administration; it’s in the background – not as a front-line healthcare hero for whom we bang pots and pans off of porches. But playing my part every day is helping take care of those heroes, and by extension, the patients that we serve. I’ve never felt more needed at work.
Diving back into a busy, hectic job, even from home, has certainly not been without challenges. My husband and I still haven’t got a consistent rhythm going to juggle our jobs and homeschooling our kids, and the level of screen time they enjoy is quite frankly shameful by the standards of any other era. There have been a couple of times where tears of frustration and stress took my breath away. To use an already clichéd phrase, these are unprecedented times. We’re all finding ways of coping. Memes and snacks and the latest Netflix documentary are giving me small joys. Although I have moved to boxed wine for shopping efficiency and economy, I know I feel better when I keep my alcohol consumption in a healthy range. I have also become a fanatic about fitting in my morning virtual workout. I recognize that the snacks are pretty much sabotaging any illusion of beach body prep, but the endorphins from moving my body are key to regulating my mood. And I have still found time here and there for house-bound hobbies like baking bread, sewing, and just sitting in the hammock in the backyard on those infrequent perfect spring days.
I am rounding out my identity with new challenges, and while I will never be free of the shadow of it, “surviving cancer” is no longer the first thing on my mind when I consider the challenges of the day to come – and that feels amazing.
I am thankful to be here in 2020; thankful to be healthy; thankful for all of this unexpected family time; and thankful all the more because of the tragedy we have witnessed over the past few months. Stay home and stay well, friends. – Candice Vander Klippe